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Post 336.

When warriors walk into the pages of history, it is up to those of us left behind to write the words that give life to their memory. So it is with Guyanese activist, Andaiye, who passed away on May 31, 2019, aged 77.

Born Sandra Williams in 1942, she changed her name to a Swahili one, meaning ‘daughter comes home’. I always admired her singular name and have never met another Caribbean woman with one name, so chosen. No patriarchal or colonial lineage to negotiate, just what Dominican revolutionary Cecilia Babb would call her ‘woman name’.

Such boldfacedness seems to have come from a fiercer time than now, when Caribbean women, indeed Caribbean people, imagined ourselves on entirely liberated and self-defined terms.

Andaiye’s story won’t be told by the victors, but by those who stood at her shoulders, her comrades, her feminist sisters, another generation of upcoming social justice foot-soldiers, and others from all walks of life whom she continues to call into battle, her spirit as unrelenting in its call for our commitment as she was in life.

She was a sharp woman, wry and acidic, yet wonderfully encouraging and compassionate. She could bless and warn at the same time, empower and humble, educate and listen. I met her many times and she was always full of quiet and unwavering truth, her gaze looking right through pretensions, power and politicking.

Forty years ago, Andaiye was a founding member of the Working People’s Alliance at a time when revolutionary politics was sweeping the region, from the Workers’ Party of Jamaica to the New Jewel Movement of Grenada to student protests of the 1970s that aimed to topple the ‘flag independence’ and establishment politics of Dr. Eric Williams in Trinidad.

She worked as Coordinator and Editor, International Secretary and Women’s Secretary, until 2000. It’s like she herself was walking in the footsteps of the renowned radical, Trinidadian Claudia Jones, tireless thinker, writer, and fighter for working people, for justice for women, and for an end to the racist legacy of colonialism.

After the assassinations of Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop, Jacqueline Creft and others in the 1980s, our Caribbean dream of a new world seemed impossible. In this dark time, women around the region began to organize anew. Andaiye co-founded Red Thread, a Guyanese women’s organization committed to women’s economic independence and power, cross-race solidarity, working-class women’s leadership, and development built on care and justice.

Women like her created and held a space bigger than our current aspirations seem. At a moment when everyone, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the big banks, is talking about women’s economic empowerment, Andaiye insists that this demands actually changing power relations in households, the economy and culture, and between our local economies and the global economic order.

She would scoff at the cheapness of a definition that aims to get more women into the waged labour force while ignoring the care labour they still carry, and while failing to support cross-class women’s movements so that the poorest of women are organized to exercise a say over our economy.

When CLR James wrote, Every Cook Can Govern, he wasn’t thinking of mothers, housewives and domestic workers, but Andaiye and the organisations she was a part of, the Women’s International Network for Wages for Caring Work, and the Global Women’s Strike, always did.

In Andaiye’s words, “I believe fundamentally that seeing how women’s unwaged labour underpins everything is the starting point of everything ranging from understanding capital to organizing against it”.

Her passing reminds that we should cherish what a generation of women spent their lives and labour working toward, and steady ourselves for the unfinished business with which we are left.

For her, Venezuela and solidarity with its people are our business. The “whole doctrine of pre-emptive strike – with all the rogue states and failed states being countries with people of colour” is our business. Men and boys murdered by the thousands across the region are our business. “Women at the bottom – working class, of color” are our business. Counting women’s labour is our business. Turning to our common humanity as a basis for political action is our business.

“I always feel good when people are not taking it – are fighting back”, said Andaiye in 2004. When published, her collection of speeches and writings will be titled, “The Point is to Change the World”. When we live by those words, we keep her memory alive. And, perhaps, that is all that needs to be said.

http://andaiye1942-2019.com/

 

 

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Post 298.

The Prime Minister has finally apologized for the PNM’s Family Day debacle. Unfortunately, in this being made a Hindu issue, with apologies to the Hindu community, all and sundry have missed the broader injuries.

Overzealousness from the newly expanded Tabaquite base and collective enjoyment of violent picong by the wider, more established base led to this tangled web.

It’s an interesting example of the complexities of traditionally Indian and UNC constituencies changing party loyalty, and reflects deep disregard and disgust for the UNC amongst those willing to turn against the hierarchy that was once their own.

Indeed, the scene was a premier example of pre-election gutter politics, which is why it was received as uproarious bacchanal among the PNM and high-handed terror among the UNC. If Tabaquite has turned against you, do you have any chance of winning Tunapuna?

Both Stuart Young and the PM could have avoided a wrong and strong approach. Meaning, a wrong happened, but shouldn’t persist with impunity and both acknowledgement and humility, or recognition and apology, were the right first instincts to have in communication with the nation.

Instead, trivializing the skit, as public statements by Womantra, CAFRA and the Hindu Women’s Organisation pointed out, reflected a failure to understand how rape culture, or treating sexual violence as normal fun by women asking for it, continues to powerfully and instinctively work in our society.

This doesn’t mean that individual men, such as the PM, are themselves being labeled rapists – which it seems only letter-writer Kevin Baldeosingh and ex-Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran – found it hysterically and stupidly important to say.

Rather, the term rape culture refers to the possibility of a scene where a women’s public disrobing can be made into an acceptable show of political power, and many not see how profoundly predatory that is.

This is standard stuff in tribal politics, so well entrenched that we don’t think of it explicitly. In inter-ethnic, cross-caste and multi-national conflicts, it’s the conquering of ‘their’ women that are the signs of triumph, for women remain objects of ownership and exchange, and controlling them remains a sign of man power and status.

At the same time, the nation is considered to be feminine, under rightful masculine or at least patriarchal authority, so the wider symbolism was not only of conquering UNC bodies, but also the body of the nation one constituency at a time, rescuing it from potentially becoming too Indian of the wrong kind.

In the discomfort of seeing women’s disrobing as political fun, its religious and racial marking was clear, but its not just an Indian or Hindu or UNC insult, and treating it this way divides women along racial, religious and political lines.

These wider implications seem to have missed the PM and the party. There was also the discomfort of seeing party faithful depicted as gorillas, which is unimaginably racist, and shouldn’t happen with impunity either, but that injury has disappeared from the narrative entirely and unfortunately, but conveniently.

The UNC and Kamla Persad-Bissessar seized on this issue as an opportunity to rally their base, and were right to do so. The skit was meant to directly symbolize a public dress down of Persad-Bissessar, as the most visible and vilified Indian woman in the nation, and the stripping of other Indian, Hindu and UNC women from these identities in order for them to become truly PNM through replacement of an obsolete yellow sari by the modernity of a red t-shirt.

Underneath it all must also have been a realization that the UNC is imploding or at least bleeding from within, and the protest was necessary to show morally respectable leadership and resilient political power, covering what should be internal party worry, for if ex-UNC Indians will turn against still-UNC Indians so publicly, and if Beetham will rather flood as PNM, despite their own disgust, than go yellow at the ballot-box, where will votes come from in 2020?

So, as the world turns, the PM is yet again denying he is a rapist, while being clueless about rape culture. He’s playing the ground war in placating Hindus while the UNC is rallying the Hinduvata and broader race-baited ire for whatever mileage it can offer, especially in the face of the SDMS’ grumpy withholding of support.

And, the issues of how women are seen, included and represented in public life, as shaped by the tangled web of sexism, racism and violence, yet again make front page, though nothing in Trinidad and Tobago appears about to change.

Post 257.

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Get up. Stand up. Speak up.

“To achieve the full and equal participation of women and men in our national and regional development as competent human beings, and not property or real estate, then we have to stand up for gender justice”. Lyrics to make a politician cringe, delivered, as they rarely are at UWI’s graduation ceremonies, by Dr. Hazel Brown.

The podium was a platform for advocacy in common-sense style. Her walk to the microphone suggested frailties that come with age, but her words were tough talk from a tireless soldier still in the trenches. She wondered aloud how being conferred an honorary doctorate would help her to achieve long-pursued dreams for women’s rights, consumer rights, transformational leadership, and fair distribution of wealth and power to meet household needs. That’s the damn question self.

How do the degrees we receive, handed like a baton from the past to the future, become our fighting words and weapons against corruption, mismanagement, violence and inequality? “My greatest disappointment during my years of advocacy has been the lack of consistent, purposeful organizing by people like yourselves, in this room, in areas of active citizenship. There’s much talk, but there’s not enough of the necessary action that is required around the advocacy and for social justice”, she cautioned another generation.

Fifty years in the work of social change and people’s empowerment, and goodly Dr. Brown’s greatest disappointment is the well-schooled, well-heeled and well-robed who, by our thousands, are responsible for today’s perfect storm of fossil fuel dependence, increasing insecurity, and near institutional collapse; all avoidable if we mobilised our degree like a hammer and sickle, a small axe, a bilna, or a broom for the sweeping changes we long need.

Few know that Hazel started at UWI and left, finding organisations like the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and later the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, a better academy for a woman of action. I can’t disagree.

Invest enough time supporting and learning from fearless activists and you emerge with lifelong intimacy with and commitment to standing up and speaking up, rather than remaining silent. You don’t conceive the work, and its demands and risks, as somebody else’s responsibility. I’m not convinced we’ve yet dreadlocked that fierce will to be truculent about transparency and justice, in the face of elite decision-making, into a UWI degree.

This can’t be top-down. Students have to demand of themselves that they learn to get up, stand up and speak up. Three weeks ago, I made my own students count all the readings they had not done and told them to give back one dollar for every one. Their education is an investment, and when they waste it the way WASA wastes water or the way the THA can’t account to the Auditor General and doesn’t care, they commit the crime that has left our Heritage and Stabilisation fund woefully empty. They directly take what could have bought another hospital bed in another Ministry’s budget, or paid another social worker to help the almost 20 000 school children seeking counseling.

Because I’ve been thinking about budgets in an economic crisis, I was dead serious about how blithe indolence is almost like tiefing. They were more offended at my demand for their pocket money than horrified at their entitlement, but how will we produce graduands who won’t waste one more public penny?

So, what are we conferring on Dr. Brown? Is it promise of solidarity? Is it institutional backing? Is it commitment to households, consumers and communities, rather than alignment with the tripartite box of labour, government and industry? Will this mean that a university dominated by men will bring its bois to back Dr. Brown in her decades-long call for a national gender policy?

Being close to her advocacy for over twenty years has taught me more than my degrees. There are not many people from whom you learn something activist, strategic, global, grounded, historical, feminist, and community-centered every time you sit in a room with them. The honor acknowledges her contribution to knowledge for Caribbean transformation. It should give her the power to be able to call on a university graduating women and men of action.

 

Post 229.

Economic insecurity increases violence.

Hunger, anger, frustration, trauma and desperate choices all rise. Expectations and needs cannot be adequately met. Low income communities, which are most exposed to these stresses, feel the effects in their homes, schools and streets, and in their relationships with police, social services and political representatives. This, despite their supportive networks, cultural strengths, elders, and positive neighbourhood leaders, both women and men.

Success, Laventille. Picton. Upper Belmont. Sea Lots. Embacadere. La Romaine. Samaroo Village. Enterprise. Covigne Road. Cocorite. These communities’ experience of destructive masculinities and gang-related violence, high rates of early parenthood, and intra-family violence are firmly linked to the effects of economic inequality, which are not effectively countered by the ‘freeness’ of hospitals, schools, social programmes or patronage-based jobs.

Indeed, economic insecurity is itself a form of violence. Throwing money at ministries is not the solution to crime, despite today’s headlines. Budgets are critical, but just as important are bureaucratic decisions, processes and cross-sectoral involvement, in this case regarding the Ministry of National Security.

With oil prices down, inflation high, and a significant part of the population dependent on the informal and illegal economy, we have to calculate more than dollars. We have to see whether how, when and through whom they are spent makes sense, directly addressing the oncoming rise of violence within vulnerable communities, and beyond them.

Over the past eight years, the Citizen Security Programme has been working to create greater peace, and community capacity to address the risk factors associated with crime and violence in 22 communities in Trinidad and Tobago. This pilot programme is coming to a close, but it’s crucial that the work introduced and partnerships supported not end. For, more than during past boom years, trust-building, conflict management, mediation, peer-counselling, youth mentorship and after-school programmes are necessary.

There’s now a National Crime Prevention Council, but its approach moves away from a successful CSP model, and requires coordination across many actors, suggesting extended start-up delays. Perhaps community peace initiatives should be implemented through regional corporations, but they lack experience. Bureaucratic lag, between when the CSP stops and when this pilot project translates into sustained state roll out, will thus literally result in increased everyday sufferation.

In the 22 original CSP communities, between 2008 and 2016, there was a reduction in murders by 55%, with the national reduction for the same period being 17%; a reduction in wounding and shooting by 20%, with the national reduction for the same period being 11%; and a reduction in sexual offenses by 63%, with the national reduction being 54%.  Additionally, the Crime and Victimization Survey (2015) found that more residents in these communities felt safe at home, that the authorities were concerned about them, that they could make a positive difference in their community, that neighbours were willing to help and trust each other, and that serious crimes could be reported.

Here, sustaining the leadership and capacity of communities themselves, and Community Action Councils, was key to preventing crime and violence, and possibly promoting long-term behavioural change between intimate partners, between parents and children, and among residents. More work has to be done specifically targeting youth and children, specifically taking into account gender-based violence, particularly against women, and child sexual abuse. Continuous investment in conflict mediation and redefining masculinities is crucial.

That work has to not stop while ministers, advisors and councils transition too slowly, in the process losing experienced service providers and generating communities’ sense of abandonment and uncertainty. Regional Corporation administrators need extensive training, in collaboration with NGOs and police, if that is the final plan for the way ahead. Timely release of funds is needed to avoid cynicism about the process among front-line workers.

There’s some simple adding up here. Economic tightening means worsening risk. Without a national programme to help higher-risk communities manage safety, gains will be reversed. Increased crime and violence will not stay within the imagined boundaries of those stereotyped areas, but eventually affect us all, heightening national trauma. Budgetary allocations must be met by urgent bureaucratic leadership and implementation of a effective programme which provides continuity as CSP ends. Post-budget, following monetary proclamations to such a necessary conclusion is what is now required of us all.

 

 

Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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Indo C Fist Thought T shirt image

Artwork by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. Layout by Kathryn Chan.

Post 214.

Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.

For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.

I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.

That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.

Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.

It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.

In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?

Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.

How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.

For a reflection on the Symposium ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations’, organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine, see Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan’s review in the Stabroek News.

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Post 187.

Universities are special. So too are university students, often the young, poised to choose from between the old and new.

Because intellectual freedom as the basis for political engagement remains a core philosophy, students can claim campus space in a way much harder to negotiate when they are younger and in schools where rules, discipline and adult authority are more valued.

Here, students have greater freedom to decide what knowledge and power they want to exercise, to practice strategizing about everything from marches to teach-ins, and to publish their own newspapers, speak out through their own radio stations or manage a budget to finance their own social movements.

It was at university that I was first inspired by a global mix of young people who ran a radical campus women’s centre, gave radio waves to lesbian and gay performers’ poetry and music, and were astoundingly well informed about injustices against Palestinians, small farmers’ challenges to corporate control of agriculture or UN conventions on human rights.

Later, at UWI, I’d just decide to set up a tent in the quadrangle and facilitate workshops, for example on masculinities, media, or the global political economy. Gender studies undergrads were there with me then and later on when they led their own consciousness raising workshops and marches on campus, freely and without fear.

Over the past decade of my students’ engagement in creative advocacy, many have used chalk graffiti to write messages, raise questions and create game boards on UWI’s concrete walls and passageways, for where else would they be able to do that legitimately? They’d lie on the ground in enough numbers to represent women killed by their partners or shout out against patriarchal debasement of female bodies, without anybody ever writing to administration or police for permission. University life gives many a first, rare chance to safely practice a politics of public engagement.

Even with assignments and faculty to maneuver, nothing stops students from also pursuing an education in defending rights, justice and peace, and for cultivating leadership in ways that draw on universities’ long history of internationalism.

With such spirit in mind, from today, Thursday 9th April, UWI students and the public are invited to show their solidarity with Kenyan Garissa University students.

Exactly one week ago, from dawn, 148 students were killed by al-Shabab, a Somali militant group, which attacked their campus.

So, from 5.30am, we will have placed a small, simple memorial next to the North gate. The public and students are asked to stop for a few moments anytime over the next week to mourn, and to attach a pen to the fence as a symbol of solidarity

Pens are not just for defending cartoonists, but are a symbol of learning that crosses geographical, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries. Pens are a symbol of budding students’ self-expression and self-empowerment. Mightier than any sword, they allow personal articulation as well as universal representation of outrage. Pens symbolize a wish to prevent erasure.

We can’t but stop to remember a massacre of university students so like our own. We can’t but think about why states’ wars over power, borders and resources, and the inflammatory mix of religion, masculinity and militarism, must be challenged.

Universities exist amidst killings in the name of nation, wealth or God, and amidst pervasive violence that strikes the most vulnerable. Yet, it is not everyday that 148 university students are amongst the world’s fallen, starkly reminding us that injustice can include attacks on schools anywhere, threatening both justice and education everywhere.

Our losses and struggles are connected. Add your pen. Make our memorial and solidarity collective.

For more info see the FB event page: Memorial and Solidarity: For Kenyan Garissa University Students #147notjustanumber.